- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The Department of Social Services says a centralized computer system to track deadbeat parents won’t be running statewide until October 2019, representing another delay in a system that’s already 18 years overdue.

Federal approval of the agency’s latest contract with Xerox took longer than expected, shifting the four-year timeline, said DSS project manager Jimmy Earley.

While final approval came Aug. 27, “we were hoping to get it much earlier, in April,” he told a Senate Finance panel Wednesday.

Earlier this year, agency officials said the system would operate statewide by March 2019. Legislators warned then they won’t tolerate more broken promises in implementing a federally required system for collecting, enforcing and distributing child-support payments.

Sen. Thomas Alexander, the panel’s chairman, said he’s extremely disappointed by yet another delay.

“But I think we’re definitely headed in the right direction,” Alexander, R-Walhalla, said after the meeting. He said he understands why the federal government would scrutinize another contract.

Earley asked the panel for $17 million next fiscal year toward the system’s creation. A series of contract disputes and lawsuits have delayed that for decades.

The latest litigation with Hewlett-Packard, on its 2007 contract, ended in January. Under that settlement, the state collected $44 million from HP and paid $5 million, for a net $39 million that can be applied toward federal fines.

The state has been fined more than $120 million since missing its extended 1997 deadline for complying with a 1988 federal law. HP and a previous contractor covered $51 million of that.

This year’s federal penalty of $11.5 million, paid in September, was fully covered by the settlement cash, according to the agency.

Developing and testing the system is expected to take three years. A four-month pilot in three counties would then start in October 2018. The agency would then roll out the system to the 43 other counties over eight months, said Earley, who took over the project earlier this year.

That means South Carolina will continue to pay annual penalties through September 2019. The bulk of that last payment could be returned if the system’s running as planned.

The system’s total price tag over the next four years, in both one-time expenses and recurring personnel costs, is expected to be more than $110 million, according to the agency. That includes penalties.

Alexander called the costs “sickening.”

“When you consider what’s already been appropriated and penalties paid to this point, it’s unreal,” he said. “It’s money that could be used in other areas of government. It could help DSS tremendously.”

The purpose of the online system is to find parents who are behind on child support payments weeks sooner, helping children and their single parents who often are struggling economically.

Under the new network, parents won’t be able to skirt payments simply by moving out of county or state: The system will communicate electronically with other states and centralize 47 separate networks currently maintained by the agency and each county clerk of court. The system will also make it easier to track someone’s employment and garnish wages.

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